Grant scheme targets partners in bid to boost universities

A new competitive grant scheme established by the United Kingdom Department for International Development or DFID designed to catalyse innovative partnerships in low-income countries for the benefit of higher education will launch an open call for partnerships later this month.

The grant scheme, known as Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform or SPHEIR, is designed to address higher education transformation on two levels: higher education delivery, and higher education enabling systems.

It is being managed on behalf of DFID by a consortium led by the British Council that includes PricewaterhouseCoopers and Universities UK International. The size of grants available through SPHEIR will range from £1 million (US$1.24 million) to £5 million over a minimum period of two years to a maximum of four years.

Speaking during an information session in Nairobi in Kenya to describe SPHEIR’s approach to its open call for partnership proposals due to take place on 21 October, SPHEIR team leader Joseph Hoffman said the partnerships will seek to transform the quality, relevance, access and affordability of higher education in order to achieve sustainable change in higher education systems.

Formal collaborations

The grants are intended to support initiatives achieved by partnerships – a formal collaboration among organisations across the higher education, private, public and civil society sectors.

“The partnership is a kind of a vehicle through which transformational initiatives will be achieved,” Hoffman said.

Not every project that SPHEIR decides to support will be able to address all the four areas simultaneously, however. Hoffman said that 90% of the proposals are likely to focus on only one of those areas and most may be around quality and relevance which, to some extent, are interconnected, he said.

He added that the biggest problem in education was quality.

“But there is no point focusing on quality if you ignore other problems such as access in education,” he said. “This may involve stimulating participation of new actors such as public and private employers, introducing new modes of delivery, or new approaches to quality assurance and academic leadership.”

Enhancing delivery and systems

In respect of the category of “higher education delivery”, the grant scheme will be looking for partnerships focused on the design and delivery of degree programmes that embed new and more effective content and-or apply innovative delivery models and teaching strategies to achieve learning outcomes that respond to market needs.

In terms of the category of “higher education enabling systems”, the grant scheme will seek out initiatives intended to enhance higher education systems and institutions, by changing the culture and practices that affect the performance of public or private universities, higher education governance bodies, and national or regional quality assurance and-or accreditation bodies.

“Systematic improvement strategies might also include reforms to university business models to improve their ability to generate and manage income streams, attract students and secure private sector investments,” according to a SPHEIR overview paper.

Hoffman said in many countries that give or receive official development assistance, higher education had mostly been viewed as less central to development compared to other visible problems such as child mortality, access to basic education, food security, or other objectives set out in the Millennium Development Goals.

Shift in focus

“The UK, like many other countries supporting development assistance, didn’t pay much attention to supporting higher education. The focus has always been on primary and secondary education, and the Millennium Development Goals were completely silent on higher education. That view has gradually been changing globally. DFID has made a decision that higher education does have a place in development,” Hoffman told University World News.

In an initial call for ‘demonstration projects’ in May, SPHEIR received 33 applications but was only seeking to fund two applicants. The October call is expected to attract many more applicants because it offers more grants.

For the open call, partnerships must focus primarily on one or more of 24 countries, including: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Pakistan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Professor Crispus Kiamba of Kenya’s University of Nairobi School of Built Environment, College of Architecture and Engineering welcomed the move, describing it as an important new initiative for Africa.

“The fact that our universities can partner with the private sector and other universities in and outside of Africa for purposes of supporting their research and academic programmes is extremely important and it’s a programme that must be welcome as it is already supporting other initiatives by DFID,” he notes.

While the initiative has the capacity to improve the status of universities in Africa, more needed to be done considering the challenges facing Africa. Kiamba argued that Africa should attract many other partners to support similar projects to that of DFID.

“When you combine these forces there will be some reasonably good impact. Africa is so massive and the problem is so massive.”